Black Power!


*In the early 1960s, Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation. 86% of all non-white families lived below the national poverty line.  In addition, the state had a terrible record of black voting rights violations. In the 1950s, Mississippi was 45% black, but only 5% of voting age blacks were registered to vote.  Some counties did not have a single registered black voter.  In 1960, the NAACP and SNCC began to work to register black voters in Mississippi and to teach them non-violent methods of protest (such as the sit-in).  Other activists were organised by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).


*More and more civil rights workers began to go into rural Mississippi as the 1960s progressed.  As the movement became popular, young, socially conscious white northerners began to go South, too, especially college students on their summer vacations.  They often came in busses with whites and black sitting together and they were called freedom riders.  Some were beaten or threatened, many saw buildings firebombed, but thousands came anyway.

*In the summer of 1961, CORE set up a Freedom Ride through the South, in which 13 young people, 6 white and 7 black, set off from Washington, D.C. on two busses through the South, stopping to defy Jim Crow Laws (using white restrooms and water fountains, for example).  In Alabama, the busses were attacked—one was even firebombed, and some riders prepared to go home.  However, more civil rights activists, led by SNCC members and other college students from Nashville, went to continue the freedom ride. In Mississippi many of the riders were arrested. When photographs of the bombed-out bus and stories about the mass arrests appeared in newspapers, President Kennedy desegregated interstate travel, although Mississippi was allowed to imprison the freedom riders for disturbing the peace.  In subsequent summers, SNCC organised more freedom rides, many of which had white college students participating as well.


*In 1962, James Meredith, an African-American Air Force veteran won the right to enrol in the University of Mississippi, and was given protection by Federal marshals.  Governor Ross Barnett and many white protesters tried to prevent him from attending, and riots began that killed 2 people and injured 160.  After Kennedy addressed the nation saying that Americans could disagree with the law but not disobey it, Meredith began attending classes, graduated the next year, and went to law school.  He was shot in 1963, but survived, although Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker who had helped Meredith get into Ole Miss, had been shot and killed earlier that year.

*In April, 1963, President Kennedy ordered the Army to enforce the integration of the University of Alabama, which was opposed by the governor of Alabama, George Wallace.  Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block two Black students from registering for classes.  Kennedy then federalised the Alabama National Guard, and their commander ordered Wallace to stand aside, which he did. 

*In 1963, Martin Luther King, junior, other members of the SCLC, and other activists began sponsoring more protest marches, particularly targeting Birmingham, Alabama.  Children even joined the marches.  Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, Bull Conner, responded by turning police dogs loose on the peaceful marchers and blasting them with fire hoses.  After this appeared on television, President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, asked Congress for a major civil rights bill.


*To put pressure on Congress, King and the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP organised a March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington in August, 1963.  200,000 people took part (twice the number hoped for), but they were peaceful.  On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King gave his famous speech describing his dream that white and black children could live in brotherhood.


*In January, 1964, the states ratified the XXIV Amendment, making it illegal to use payment of the poll tax as a basis for voting in state or national elections.


*Not long afterwards, President Johnson and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned all public segregation and workplace segregation based on race, sex, or national origin.  It also allowed the Justice Department to enforce this legislation. 


*1964 was Freedom Summer, as thousands of civil rights workers organised by SNCC streamed into the Deep South in a massive voter registration drive during the presidential election year.  It was fairly successful:  within five years, 66.5% of blacks in Mississippi would be registered to vote (higher than the national average).  Blacks and their white friends formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sent four delegates to the national convention, two of whom were seated as delegates-at-large as part of a compromise with the white Democrats.  However, in the short run, it was a hard and violent summer.


*In June 1964, three civil rights workers--two white and one black--went to investigate a firebombing at a black church.  They were arrested for traffic violations, and shortly afterwards vanished.  Their bodies were found six weeks later under a dam.  The white workers had been shot through the chest; the Negro had been beaten to death.


*The FBI arrested 21 local whites, including the sheriff, but none were convicted by juries of their peers.


*In 1965, there was a major voter registration drive in Alabama, where blacks made up 50% of the state population but only 1% of the state’s voters.  In a series of marches, Blacks and white supporters led by Martin Luther King marched 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery.  On the way, they were attacked by police dogs, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, beaten by mounted police with nightsticks, whipped, attacked with tear gas, and hundreds were arrested--they did not even make it to Montgomery until the third time they tried to march.  Besides southern Blacks, a Unitarian minister from Boston was killed during the march, and a Klansmen later killed a white woman from Detroit who was involved in the march. 


*In response, LBJ pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress, and signed it into law on 6 August 1965.  It outlawed the literacy test and sent Federal registrars into the South to make sure everyone had a chance to register to vote.


*Johnson City was desegregated by court order in 1965, and Langston High School was shut down (along with most other coloured schools) because no white parent was willing to let their child go to a black school.  In 1956, ETSU had admitted its first black student, Eugene Caruthers, a graduate student in music, who went on to direct the band at Langston High for its last few years in operation.


*Not all blacks were satisfied with the slow pace of non-violent protest, and a few opposed working with white people at all.  In fact, the non-violent period of the Civil Rights Movement ended in 1965.  In 1965, a few days after the Voting Rights Act was passed, riots broke out in Watts, Los Angeles, and blacks looted and burned their way through their own neighbourhoods.  The new slogan was ‘Black Power,’ but when riots began in 1967 in Detroit (leading to 48 deaths) and Newark (with 25 deaths), the rioters chanted ‘burn, baby, burn.’


*Some younger black leaders mocked King, saying he was too conciliatory.  Malcolm X was a black nationalist in the Nation of Islam.  Although Born Malcolm Little, he changed his last name to X to reject his ‘slave name.’  Nation of Islam is an extremist Black Nationalist group with teachings based on Islam, but not regarded as truly Islamic by most other Moslems.  Among other things, the Nation of Islam believes that non-Black people are actually demons and that there have been prophets since Muhammed.


*Eventually Malcolm X would again rename himself (to El Haj Malik El-Shabazz) and move away from extreme Black Nationalism.  Shortly afterwards, in 1965, he was shot by men from the Nation of Islam, perhaps at the behest of Louis Farrakhan.


*Even SNCC moved away from its non-violent roots, taking up the Black Power slogan.  Stokely Carmichael had been a member of SNCC since 1960, had worked on the Freedom Rides since 1961, and in 1966 became chairman of SNCC.  He promised that Black Power would ‘smash everything western civilization has created,’ and promoted the notion that ‘black is beautiful,’ glorifying unique clothing and hairstyles (like the Afro), and eventually becoming ‘honorary prime minister’ of the Black Panthers.  He did vow to continue voter registration drives in Mississippi after James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black student, was murdered in 1966.  Nonetheless, men like Carmichael frightened whites and some blacks, while other black people saw this as a rebirth of Marcus Garvey’s separatism.


*The Black Panthers were formed in 1966 to protect blacks from white violence.  They created a military-style organization, carried weapons, and even marched into the California statehouse with shotguns to protest restrictions on Blacks’ right to bear arms.  They often fought with police, sometimes committed robberies and other crimes (keeping a cut of the proceeds to fund the Black Panther Party), and frightened many whites.  However, the Black Panther Party was also involved in many community projects as part of their organization. These projects included community outreach, such as free breakfast programs that supposedly fed 20,000 children in one year alone, educational programs, and health programs, at least until many of their leaders were arrested or killed by law enforcement.


*In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis began to strike for better wages.  They soon turned it into a civil rights issue as well, for almost all of them were black.  The NAACP came to support them, and in March, Martin Luther King came to town, and urged a one-day general strike for all black workers.

*King led a group of 5,000 peaceful demonstrators on a march through town, but a small group of Black Power advocates called the Invaders were there, too, and began looting and rioting.  King was criticised across the nation, because it was obvious he did not have control of the situation.  He planned another march to prove himself, but on
4 April 1968, he was shot by an assassin and died.  Blacks across the country rioted.

*Shortly afterwards the mayor of
agreed to give the black sanitation workers a slight raise and recognition of their labour union, and the strike ended.


*Just as blacks were winning legal victories, they were alienating many of their former allies through the actions of a few violent radicals--the riots that broke out in Memphis were a sad memorial for a man who preached non-violence.  Despite the turmoil, some African-Americans were quietly succeeding, finding better jobs and being elected as mayors, governors, and members of Congress, and by 1972 almost half of Southern classrooms were integrated (although sometimes through the controversial practice of bussing students long distances to mix students from predominantly Black neighbourhoods into predominantly white schools).  Many of the problems of the past had been solved, or at least addressed, but many had not, as well.

This page last updated 29 November, 2018.
Powered by Hot Air